Saturday, February 20, 2016

This Week in Texas Methodist History February 21

Henry Matthews Reports Visiting W. P. Smith, “Radical” Methodist and “Regular” Physician, February, 1837

In early 1837 Rev. Henry Matthews (1799-18??) was in the process of relocating from Natchitoches, Louisiana to Texas.  Matthews had been a Methodist preacher in Ohio before moving to Louisiana and becoming a pharmacist/physician.  He lived in Houston for several months in 1837 but then moved to San Felipe.  While living in Houston he signed the first marriage license issued by Harrisburg (later Harris) County as officiating clergyman.
In February 1837 he crossed the Brazos at Washington and reported on his visit with W. P. Smith, a “radical” Methodist and “regular” physician.
Those two adjectives offer an insight into the intellectual history of the era. Just what were a “radical” Methodist and a “regular” physician?
The 1830’s have been called the Age of Jackson after President Andrew Jackson who seemed to symbolize the changes occurring in the United States.  Jackson was the first president whose background was the frontier rather than the East Coast.  He was also the first of the “common men” to become president.  The previous presidents had all been well-educated members of the nation’s elite.
Democratic reform in the political sphere was driven by an expansion of the franchise as states dropped the property-holding requirement for voting.  Candidates thus had to appeal to a wider swath of society.
A more expansive democracy was not confined to politics—it also impacted religion and medicine.  A reform group arose in Methodism that wished to make the denomination more democratic.  Bishops and presiding elders were obvious targets.  Reforms wished to abolish those offices and create a democratic denomination untainted by episcopal authority.  The result was a denomination called the Methodist Protestant Church.  Smith was a licensed preacher in that denomination, hence the appellation, “radical.”  The Methodist Protestant Church continued until 1939 when it merged with the MEC and MECS to become the Methodist Church.
Full fledged democracy also existed in the field of medicine.  There were no government regulations on who could practice medicine.  The 1830s witnessed a flowering of competing medical philosophies—allopathy, naturopathy, hydropathy, herbalism, etc—all competing with each other in attracting patients.  What Matthews called “regular” can best be described as the forerunner of what eventually became the scientific practice of medicine by M.D.’s.  We have a good idea of Smith’s practice of medicine because he enlisted in the Texian Army on Jan. 1, 1836.  After the war, he applied for compensation for his services as an army doctor.  As part of his claim, he inventoried the contents of his medical bag.  Readers of this column may wish to see what Dr. Smith carried with him in his medical practice—everything from rhubarb to opium.  It is available from the Texas State Library at


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